Features 2 minutes 25 June 2018

Seoul Food: The Faces Of Contemporary Korean Cuisine

Chefs Lee Jun, Ryu Tae-hwan and Yim Jung-sik talk about the modernisation of Korean cuisine.

Surely, there has never been a better time for fine dining in Seoul, with the influx of international chefs and Korean chefs gaining more recognition at home and abroad. The second edition of the MICHELIN Guide Seoul this year has further cemented the city’s status as one of the most vibrant dining destinations in Asia.

While the three-Michelin-star echelon in Seoul has been solely occupied by two traditional Korean fine-dining restaurants, Gaon and La Yeon, in the last two years, it seems that the trend of chef-driven, contemporary Korean cuisine is fast gaining traction. One such restaurant is Jungsik, moving up the ranks from one star to two in the MICHELIN Guide Seoul 2018.
The interiors of Jungsik.
The interiors of Jungsik.
New Korean Cuisine

Having trained at the Culinary Institute of American in New York, chef Yim Jung-sik is oft-credited with introducing Korean cuisine to the world with his Seoul flagship and New York restaurants. Drawing inspiration from the familiar — kimbap, bibimbap, gujeolpan and bossam — the chef has a flair for creating the unexpected that is both evocative and authentic at the same time.

Over at Michelin Plate restaurant Ryunique in Seoul, dinner opens with a dragonfly — a delicate amuse bouche with gossamer wings of dehydrated kimchi leaves held to a potato stick body with a dab of chestnut puree and finished with a head made of chilli paste. It’s a moreish snack, distinctly Korean in its flavour profile yet contemporary in its execution and presentation.
A signature snack at Ryunique.
A signature snack at Ryunique.
Like Yim, Ryunique’s chef Ryu Tae-hwan is one of the prominent faces of contemporary Korean fine dining, characterised by an ingredient-forward focus, melding traditional and innovative techniques within a Western nouvelle-inspired backdrop.

Spotlight On Local Produce

A distinction of new Korean cuisine is its emphasis on locally sourced produce, showcasing the country’s terroir and seasonality. At Ryunique, Ryu uses sweet and succulent apple-fed pork from the Yesan region in South Korea and seasonal seafood caught off the shores of Seochon, where the warm and cold sea waters meet and the marine life congregates.

Yet, a challenge for chefs championing contemporary Korean cuisine in Seoul is changing perceptions of local produce. In a city where fine dining is relatively new, the price point is only justified by conventional imported luxury ingredients like truffle or foie gras.

While the shorter mileage makes for fresher ingredients that showcase seasonality, Ryu acknowledges that using local produce is as expensive, if not more, than imported luxury products. “If people have to pay a high price for an ingredient, they’re still likely to choose something like truffle.”
Diners still lean towards imported luxury products like truffle and caviar over local produce. (Pic: Soigne)
Diners still lean towards imported luxury products like truffle and caviar over local produce. (Pic: Soigne)
This may be a sentiment that is slowly changing. Yim says: “I think there’s always been some sense of pride — the Asian pride — in our food. Perhaps what’s happening is that people are beginning to enjoy Korean ingredients now with more thought, whereas before they ate without thinking.”

Delving Into The Past To Create The Future

At chef Lee Jun’s one-Michelin-starred Soigne, local ingredients take on starring roles in his episodic menus which reflect his culinary influences. “I’d say my cooking roots are in the States, because that’s where I studied, but my branches are Korean, and my leaves are Italian and French.” For him, contemporary Korean cuisine is a natural extension of himself. “For me, I don’t necessarily try to modernise Korean food, but I’m a human living in the modern era. Everything I do is naturally modernised,” he says.

Lee is a strong proponent that food is a product of culture, and while it is imperative to respect tradition, simple preservation is not the only way to do so. “It’s important to reinvent. Just like a car company; cooks try to save heritage and respect core philosophies, while also adding technology and cooler designs. One doesn’t have to love the past — we can pick the parts we want from it and make something better.”
The Deodeok dish from Soigne's recent episodic menu.
The Deodeok dish from Soigne's recent episodic menu.
He gives the example of the local deodeok root that he uses in his current summer menu. The fibrous and bitter bonnet bellflower root is prized for its medicinal properties and in olden days, was traditionally pickled or salted to preserve it. “Young chefs generally have no idea how to utilise it. We don’t need to use salt to preserve it anymore, so it’s time to move on and use this traditional ingredient to create new recipes.”

At Soigne, he cooks the deodeok root low and slow, and then caramelises it with hand-churned sage butter and sunflower seed powder, breathing new life into an ancient ingredient.

“There is a saying in Korean, on go ji sin, which means that the new can save the old,” says Ryu, a notion that that is echoed by Yim as well. “Korean food already has a distinct character,” says Yim. “[Modernising it] is a way of creating new culture and giving more choice to the consumer.”


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